This photo: Mary McNally. All other photos courtesy of Lori Atwater.
At 51, Lori Atwater is earning an engineering degree she hopes will help her change the world
By Mary McNally
The mother of four grown children, Lori Atwater had been successful as a union electrician, an information systems manager and self-employed technical consultant. But she traded it all in for dorm life and a meal plan.
At age 51, Atwater is a full-time resident of Poly Canyon Village, pursuing an engineering degree she abandoned 30 years earlier.
At the time, as a young wife and mother, she thought that investing in her husband’s degree would be enough. But she yearned for something more.
So she volunteered to join a single overseas aid mission with Mountainbook Community Church in 2005 but it became a calling. In that year, Atwater traveled to Thailand and Indonesia to rebuild houses after a tsunami ravaged the area. She also journeyed to Malawi, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, to help develop subsistence farming capacity. She was also involved in a book study at the church. The group encouraged her to “live the life you’re wired for,” said Thom O’Leary, the lead pastor. “Lori began to see the bigger scope of how she could make a difference in the world.”
As she continued her travels, she recognized the gap between emergency response and the effort it really takes to help affected regions build sustainable communities and economies of their own. That recognition ignited her passion for sustainable international development and ultimately, her decision to return to school.
“It was a long, painful process to come back to school,” she said. “There is a stark contrast between myself and the other students so it can be hard to relate to each other.”
But she walked away from a comfortable income, a company car and other trappings associated with success because she didn’t want money to drive her decisions. “You have to be true to your gifts,” she said.
Atwater (center) and others look at a
bicycle-powered water pump in Malawi.
Since returning to school, she has gone global with Cal Poly’s learn-by-doing philosophy. Last year, she was part of a team that took a bicycle-powered water pump to Malawi to help villagers become self-sufficient. She said it’s important to design “for the planet” – places where the population doesn’t have technical training and where clean-rooms don’t exist. “That presents interesting design challenges.”
This year, she corralled a multidisciplinary group of six students and Mechanical Engineering Professor Frank Owen into a trip to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) under the auspices of Alternative Breaks, a program that facilitates international service learning projects during academic holidays.
The goal of the trip was to learn about Arab culture and language, explore the changing roles of women in the Arabian Gulf, and identify projects on which the Cal Poly students can collaborate with international student partners.
The aim is a cooperative entry in the 2012 Solar Decathlon, an international competition in which universities demonstrate energy-efficient technologies and construction by building sustainable houses that run on solar energy. A group from the UAE’s American University of Sharjah will travel to Cal Poly May 18-28 to advance the project. The prospective partners also hope to include a contingent from Spain, creating a truly global service learning project.
Atwater maintains that sustainable solutions are so complex that they require an integrated approach. Engineers, she said, have to be trained with the economic, environmental, social and cultural implications of their designs in mind. After all, she said, “Everything we touch is engineered.”
Atwater and other Cal Poly students with
students in the United Arab Emirates.
Along those lines, she said the interdisciplinary, hands-on opportunities at Cal Poly are invaluable, “They’re real-world adventures with social science, biology, finance and engineering.”
After graduating, Atwater intends to pursue a doctorate and build a for-profit company that designs sustainable applications that can be used in rural areas and remote villages, and spin those businesses off to indigenous partners. She feels it’s imperative to build a responsible model of a for-profit company; otherwise, the only business model villagers see is one of “asking for money.”
Part of the pain of returning to school was realizing what a perfect fit engineering had been for her 30 years earlier, she said. Then again, her life experience has equipped her to take a more proactive role in her education, engaging professors in the classroom and creating opportunities that enhance her studies.
“This really is the best time,” she said. “I never would have gotten as much out of the experience as I’m getting right now.”